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Volunteer lawyers who devote time to two northern New Jersey organizations that provide free legal services to the poor and to community groups will be granted exemptions from court-ordered mandatory pro bono assignments, according to rules published last week by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Lawyers who devote at least 25 hours of work to either the Pro Bono Partnership or the Essex County Volunteer Lawyers for Justice program this year will be granted exemptions from mandatory pro bono assignments in 2002. The court granted the two organizations’ requests to be added to its list of county or regional pro bono programs, service in which will relieve lawyers of pro bono assignments, says Dennis Bliss, the court’s director of municipal court services. The list includes legal aid societies, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Pro Bono program, the Domestic Violence Service Program, the U.S. Immigration Court Pro Bono program and the U.S. District Court Civil Pro Bono program. “We’re thrilled,” says Jennifer Hague, a deputy director of the Pro Bono Partnership who heads the New Jersey office of the New York-based program. “It’s a recognition that we’re making a significant impact for the non-profit organizations we serve.” The move also was applauded by Cary Cheifetz, the president of the Essex County Bar Association, which created the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice program last year. “It’s a fabulous idea because it allows lawyers to offer services to areas in which they have competence,” says Cheifetz, a partner at Sprinfield’s Ceconi & Cheifetz. “If you allowed lawyers to self-direct their services, there would probably be more pro bono work.” Mandatory pro bono assignments have been a thorn in the side of lawyers for years, particularly since the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling, in Madden v. Delran, 126 N.J. 591 (1992), that municipal governments were not required to provide public defender services and ordered assignment judges to begin assigning lawyers in private practice to represent indigent defendants in municipal courts that had no public defender services. The state legislature later enacted the Public Defender Act, which required local governments to appoint public defenders for their municipal courts. But mandatory pro bono didn’t disappear, as lawyers are still assigned to handle, for example, custody and probation cases in Superior Court. Since its ruling in Madden, the state supreme court has maintained a list of exemptions from mandatory pro bono work that is revised every year. Most of the changes approved for the current year are minor, says Bliss. Language in last year’s exemption list included a specific reference to out-of-state lawyers who do not maintain a bona fide office in New Jersey. Lawyers who practice in this state are required under R. 1:21-1(a) to maintain a bona fide office. That reference was removed under the exemption list issued last month. Bliss says the language was deleted because the AOC had received a number of inquiries from lawyers who were confused about whether they had to complete the annual Attorney Registration Pro Bono Counsel Assignment Questionnaire. Specifically, says Bliss, the exemption is meant to apply to lawyers who, while they may have been admitted to practice in New Jersey, do not work in the state and do not maintain a presence here. “If a lawyer is not in compliance with the rule, they are ineligible to practice in New Jersey, so they won’t be eligible to be assigned pro bono cases,” says Bliss. Out-of-state lawyers who do not maintain a bona fide office are ineligible to practice here, so it logically follows that they are exempt from performing mandatory pro bono work in New Jersey as well, he says. Also exempt are lawyers who appear pro se or pro hac vice in a New Jersey court, or who appear as a guardian of a party of interest “The exemptions recognize that a lawyer can always represent himself in court and that doing so shouldn’t trigger his or her eligibility to be assigned a pro bono case,” says Bliss. The same reasoning applies to lawyers who appear as a guardian of a party of interest or who is admitted pro hac vice to handle one particular case. There also were questions from in-house counsel asking whether they were subject to mandatory pro bono assignments, says Bliss. Answer: They are. The list of exemptions now directly says that in-house counsel are not exempt from pro bono assignments. “The changes were made primarily because of the type of inquiries we were getting from lawyers,” says Bliss. “They are mostly housekeeping types of changes. None of the changes are drastic.”

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